The boxes had been carried to the foyer and examined to be sure every ornament was intact. Henry had tested and strung each set of multi-colored lights under Marjorie's strict observation. When the clock struck six everyone stopped and stared at the large face refusing to believe the hours had passed so quickly. Each one scrambled from the floor to their feet or from a ladder to the floor in order to scurry off to get ready for the night's events. At 6:45 the doorbell chimed. Marjorie pulled the door opened to admit Connie who wore a full-length fur coat.
"What do you think?" she winked at Marjorie as she spun in a circle to model her wrap. "Took me five years to save up enough to pay for the damn thing and I don't have anywhere to wear it!" She laughed hysterically as she handed the two large shopping bags she carried to the housekeeper and slipped the coat off her shoulders. The two women exchanged the items they held. "Be careful with that now, Marge, lots of little fuzzy wuzzies were generous enough to sacrifice themselves for it and I want to take very good care of them for a long time." Marjorie laughed at Connie's jest as she opened the long hall closet and hung the garment inside. "I know Payton said not to bring anything but I couldn't resist. I'm off to Virginia to visit with the family at the end of the week and I wanted to be sure the little sweetheart had something special from me." The secretary moved to the tree and started unpacking the bags and setting at least a dozen packages of various sizes, shapes and colors beneath it. She glanced over her shoulder and caught the look on Marjorie's face. "Oh, now don't, Marge! They're not all for Reagan, I've got a few here for my other sweetie as well." She smiled again and quickly folded the bags, handing them to the woman. "Quick," she whispered, "get rid of these before old iron bottom sees them." Both women shared a chuckle at Payton's expense.
"Starting without me?" Payton's voice came from the top of the stairs as she leaned over the railing to see what the commotion was all about. Marjorie quickly exited the room taking the 'evidence' with her. Payton began a slow descent. She walked across the foyer, eyeing the gifts that had appeared beneath the tree. "Hmmm," Payton raised an eyebrow and wrinkled up one side of her face, "could have sworn we agreed on no gifts."
"Gifts?" Connie exclaimed innocently, "Those gifts?" She pointed at the packages beneath the pine.
Payton nodded with a silly grin, "they'd be the ones."
"Don't know a thing about them, I just got here myself. Santa must have paid an early visit." She smiled, trying to hide her guilt.
"Uh huh," Payton laughed as she shook her head and wrapped an arm around the tall slender woman. "You are something else, Connie."
"You're quite a complication yourself, Miss McAllister." Connie retorted as she did the same. "Let's have a drink. I've heard this place serves a mean Egg Nog."
"Connie!!!"a familiar young voice exclaimed, as Reagan raced down the stairs and practically knocked the secretary over as she crashed into her with a powerful hug.
"Ooof!" Connie expelled as she caught the child and bent to place a quick kiss on the top of her head. "Glad to see you too, sweetheart."
Reagan looked up without releasing her hold on Connie's waist. "I'm glad you came," she smiled broadly then moved back and turned to Pam, who had followed her down the spiral staircase. "This is my friend from school, this is Pamela Morgan."
Connie stepped toward the child, "Hello, Pamela Morgan, I'm Connie Sinclair."
"Hello, ma'am," Pamela nodded quietly.
"Oh none of that ma'am stuff with me, honey, just call me Connie," she smiled at the child who smiled back her, "and I must say you all look absolutely magnificent this evening!" She remarked stepping back to admire her hostesses.
Reagan wore a dark green velvet dress with a with white filigree collar, off white stocking and black velvet Mary Janes. The dress was simple but the color was an excellent contrast to the girl's fair complexion and reddish blonde hair. The sprinkle of freckles across her nose seemed to glow in the combination of colors. Pamela's dress was similar in design and Connie suspected Payton had made sure the visitor had been given a special gift for the evening. This child, whose hair was honey brown and as curly as that little Temple girl's, was decked out in a deep burgundy dress with a white collar and three tiny pearl buttons at her neck. Her stockings were the same as Reagan's and her shoes just a wee bit different in style but made of the same velvet material. Apparently Payton had been doing some styling as well, since both girls' coifs were impeccable.
Payton herself seemed to have a special glow and Connie wondered if it were the holiday or the anticipation of that 'certain someone' who was due at any moment. Payton wore a black evening dress that complemented her figure as if it had been designed for her alone. Over it she wore a short jacket adorned with an array of tiny silver beads that caught the light and reflected it in a myriad of colors. Her hair that she usually wore down was pulled up and away from her face. She wore a single strand of pearls and small pearl earrings. Connie arched her eyebrows just a little. "I see you've done some shopping. Trying to impress anyone I know?" She teased as they walked into the dining room behind the girls.
Payton poked her arm around Connie's and smiled evilly, "You'll just have to wait and see now won't you." She wriggled her eyebrows a few times causing both of them to snicker at the silliness of the conversation.
Before the women reached the dining room table, the loud clap of the doorknocker announced the arrival of a second guest. Since Reagan and Pamela had been versed on the protocol of the evening they made no attempt to race to answer it, allowing Marjorie to walk slowly to do her duty. It did seem a bit odd to the housekeeper, since Payton had insisted she and her husband join the party as guests that evening. She pulled open the door and greeting a six-foot tall pile of gaily wrapped boxes. Marjorie blinked a few times then reached out to the stack. "Can I help you?" she snickered.
Colin craned his neck to peer around his parcels. "Marjorie?" he greeted her, quickly shifting his weight to avoid losing his goods. The topmost package teetered precariously then bounced off the side, bumping down against the others. Marjorie grabbed the small box and put her hand against the others, helping Colin to steady the pile. "Mr. Walters, is that you under all those boxes?" She leaned to the side to meet his gaze. He nodded with a smile, the motion immediately setting the gifts into a second wobbly dance with their porter. Again Marjorie helped to stabilize them, this time removing the upper boxes and revealing the young man's face. "You'd better get in here before you end up decorating the front stoop with your cargo!" She scolded as she moved aside to let him pass.
The young man slipped across the foyer with such stealth that Marjorie found herself tiptoeing behind him and looking from side to side for peering eyes that might be watching. Once they reached the tree, Colin took one last look around then quickly placed his trove under it. Marjorie followed suit. He turned to her and placed a finger on his lips, signaling her to keep quiet. Marjorie's eyes widened and she nodded slowly as she moved around him to take his coat. She shook her head. 'Did these silly people actually think Payton wouldn't know where these gifts came from? They should have been as sneaky as she and Henry and placed them BEHIND the large tree, not right out in front!' She walked to the closet to hang the garment as Colin straightened his tie and walked toward the sound of laughter coming from the dining room.
"Colin!" Connie crooned as he entered. She moved to meet him and kissed him softly on the cheek. "Merry Christmas!!" She smiled, then winked at Payton.
Colin took a step toward the lady of the manor, focusing on her smile. "Hi Colin!" Reagan beamed as she stepped in his path and took his hand. "Doesn't the tree look great since all the branches settled down?" She smiled and tugged at his arm.
"Everyone thing looks wonderful," he commented, still eyeing the dark haired woman across the large room. He looked down at the child smiling up at him and put a hand against her cheek, "especially all of you lovely ladies." Reagan giggled and pulled the young man toward her sister.
"Bet you never saw anything so beautiful!" the girl announced waving her arm in an arc to display the decorations that had sprung up throughout the house.
"Never," Colin repeated in a hushed tone as he stepped in front of Payton. She cast her eyes to the floor, suddenly embarrassed by his attention.
The usually dark and dismal manor was sparkling with trails of bright green garland that stretched in loops across the mantle and tops of the long draperies. Bright shining sliver balls hung at regular intervals below large red velvet bows. Tall white and gold tapers stood in crystal holders entwined with holly. Their flames blinked and flickered happily almost as if they had taken on the spirit of the season. The back of each chair was covered with a deep green mat bordered with gold Greek key designs. The gold fringe hung down almost reaching to the seat of each. The shining cherry tables were covered with matching runners and each one held a pine centerpiece that wrapped tightly around thick bayberry candles. All in all, the entire house glowed with the holiday spirit.
The hall clock chimed the half-hour. Payton sighed with relief as she stepped around the lawyer. "I think Marjorie has dinner ready," she announced in a voice slightly higher than usual. Connie's eyebrows went up in a silent look of surprise. Payton's glare quickly erased it. Colin quickly shook off his infatuation (for now) and assumed a more casual attitude. He released the button on his silk jacket and pushed one hand into a pocket.
Reagan looked at the dining room table and wondered why her sister insisted it were dinnertime. The table was covered with a white lace cloth. A large crystal bowl of yellowish liquid set in the center, circled by several matching crystal cups. Small plates of various treats were placed strategically across the rest of the surface. Reagan couldn't imagine this being dinner and pretty much figured they wouldn't be eating in the much smaller kitchen. She looked at Pam, who seemed to be having much the same thoughts. They both scrunched up their noses and shrugged their shoulders.
A small bell rang out clearly, reminding Reagan of the sound that preceded the entrance of a priest at Sunday mass. She hadn't been to chapel since she'd come to the manor and for an instant she wondered if Payton did that kind of thing. The bell rang a second time and she looked to her sister for explanation. Payton reached out a hand to her and smiled as if she had a great secret. Reagan grabbed Pamela's hand and took her sister's in the other. "Follow us." Payton said quietly as she started toward the foyer. Reagan was even more confused. Were they going to have dinner in there?
The entire group moved across the wide foyer, passed the tree and stopped in front of the tall double doors that Reagan had never seen opened in all her time in the manor. Payton dropped the child's hand and looked down at her with a sparkle in her eye that hinted Reagan would enjoy what was to come. She quickly glanced over her shoulder at the others as she placed both hands on the brass knobs of the doors, dragging out the act as long as she possibly could. Reagan held her breath as Payton turned the knobs and pushed the large doors apart revealing the spectacle beyond them.
The banquet room's opulence went far beyond the grandeur of the dining room and parlor that was the main living area of the manor. This room was certainly the jewel of the house. The chandelier that hung in the center of the gold inlaid ceiling was at least as big as Colin's small car and aside from the crystal prisms that hung from it, it was decked with the same green garland and silver ornaments that adorned the other rooms. The table was long and black, the chairs so massive Reagan was sure that she would need help to move them. There were tall candles set on either end that burned brightly, casting their flickery light that reflected off the one full wall of mirrors and all of the prisms above. Rainbows of refracted light danced around the room adding to its magnificence. Marjorie stood next to the table that was set for eight and covered with every food imaginable. Henry was at her side, tugging at the collar of his starched white shirt. His stubby beard was gone revealing the strong handsome profile under it. Gone was the old Dodgers' cap and the older man's hair was neatly parted and combed. He seemed uncomfortable, but Reagan couldn't help smiling at him.
The small crowd stood in the doorway a step behind their hostess merely staring into the grand ballroom. Payton raised her arms in a 'tah-dah' motion. "What are you waiting for?" she beamed with the joy of being able to do this for her 'family'. "Let's "
An unusually loud bang stopped her short and everyone turned toward the front door. A second series of loud knocks came fast and furious. The group exchanged looks and Payton took a step toward the entranceway. Henry stepped forward quickly motioning for her to stay put. He exited the room and all eyes watched as he opened the front door just enough to view the noisy visitor.
Henry narrowed his eyes as he scanned the stranger from tip to toe. This person was covered from head to foot in a long dark woolen overcoat. It wore a cap that came down over its ears and tied below the chin and a scarf that was wrapped around the face to the extent that only a pair of pale blue eyes blinked out at him. Small balls of snow clung to the garments adding to the odd outfit. The being held a rather wet and tearing paper bag in a tight hug.
"Umm lkng frrr a Mmmllstr redin," it mumbled.
"Huh?" Henry cocked his head and moved to stand between the creature and his family. Connie sensed the danger and quickly moved the girls into the ballroom. Marjorie put out her arms and took them close to her. Colin started to ease Payton out of the line of fire, then caught himself. If anyone could take care of herself, it was Payton McAllister.
The stranger bent over at an odd angle and used one mittened hand to pull the scarf away from its mouth. "I said," the figure took a deep breath and continued, "I'm looking for the McAllister residence." The hat slipped down over the thing's eyes as the scarf slid back up cutting off the end of its statement.
"Uh huh " Henry nodded slowly, just a bit suspicious of this odd visitor, "why's that?"
The creature repeated its routine of removing the scarf. "Party invited lost broke ." Henry managed to get from the garbled reply.
" Fleischman?" Colin inquired as he stepped around the older man.
"Mmmm Msssrrrs!" Came the muffled exclamation as the thing raised its head to see from under the peak of its hat. It reeled back, dangerously close to going backside first down the stairs. Colin reached out quickly and snatched it by the lapels, bringing it back to a standing position. He put an arm around the smaller person and pulled him into the house. Henry shut the door, still eyeing the thing with trepidation. Payton stood in the doorway with her arms folded over her chest. She shook her head and put a hand to her mouth to hide the laughter she could not contain. Two small faces peeked from behind her. Connie stood protectively close to them.
The snow-covered bagman set his package on the floor carefully and stood unraveling the scarf from his neck and face then pulled off the cap that had covered his ears and the rest of his head. He shook the snow from his shoulders and smiled a wide sideways grin at the group. "Sorry I'm late, Miss McAllister," Donnie explained, "it's kinda hard to read those directions in the dark and that old car of mine broke down about a mile back and I had to walk the rest of the way and ."
"Oh, you poor boy!" Marjorie exclaimed rushing past the others to him, "you must be frozen solid!" He smiled again as the red blush of embarrassment flooded his cheeks.
"Oh no, ma'am," he assured her as he squirmed out of the coat she was tugging on, "I'm not cold well, not really cold ." He sighed as he shucked off the Buckle Arctics that covered his feet.
Colin slapped the young man on the back knocking him forward a few inches. "Come on, join the party!" He laughed. Donnie smiled. Colin steadied him again then turned the young man toward him, straightened his tie, flattened the lapels of the jacket that seemed a little too large and pointed him back in the direction of the ballroom.
Donnie took a few steps then stopped remembering his package. He went back, retrieved it and walked back to Payton. "Um, thank you for inviting me Miss McAllister," he began shyly, "my Mom sent this, said she didn't think it'd be polite to come empty handed." He looked at the woman then quickly added, "I know you said not to but its just some jellies and jams Mom put up this fall and a loaf of her special nutbread and "
"It's okay, Donnie." Payton said quietly as she took the bundle from him. "I'm glad you could make it. Thank you." She smiled and he swallowed nervously then entered the ballroom. Marjorie smiled as well and took the package from her employer motioning for her to join the others.
After dinner was over the entire group volunteered to help Marjorie clear and carry all of the dishes to the kitchen. Once again Reagan was astounded by the layout of her ancestral home. A small white door on the inside wall of the banquet room opened into a long hallway that wound under the staircase and led into the main dining room on the opposite side. The housekeeper explained to the wide-eyed girls that it was a way for the servants to carry food and drink into the banquet room without passing through the foyer. In the old days, when the manor hosted many parties the meal was cooked in the kitchen and set in the dining area. The dining room doors were kept closed so the room could be used to hold the food, and the guests' coachman could be served there as well. That way all of the 'upper crust' celebrants could use the ballroom and never lay eyes on the 'help'. Reagan and Pamela were fascinated with the manor's history. Colin and Connie shared memories of holidays in their own homes and how after the main meal everyone would gather in the kitchen as the clutter was cleared. Connie confessed that although she generally hated the clean-up process, that was probably her most favorite part of the holiday. Colin laughed that he was usually not involved in what was considered the ladies' chores, but even as a boy he wondered what all the revelry was about in the kitchen. His sisters usually grumbled over doing dishes, but they rushed to this duty after holiday meals. Marjorie smiled at Payton who stood listening to her friends' memories, hoping that she too was enjoying the moment. The housekeeper and her two small shadows made their way back to the ballroom through the long tunnel. Donnie looked up with a startled expression as they entered. For a moment the poor housekeeper thought perhaps, the poor boy was choking. She moved quickly to his side and gently thumped his back. The young man looked at her with such a mortified tone that she was almost positive of her thought.
"Oh m'gosh," he squeaked, patting his trousers with one hand, as if looking for some lost item. "I left it in the car!"
"Left what, dear?" The housekeeper asked in a motherly tone.
"I gotta go back," Donnie announced as he almost dropped the stack of fine china he was holding. He caught himself in the nick of time, easing the pile back onto the table then rushed past Payton, who was entering the room, practically knocking her over in the process. The young man quickly grabbed her by the upper arms, then realizing just who he was holding, just as quickly released her. "I I I'm s-sorry Miss McAllister I was I just I forgot " he stammered in such haste that very little was intelligible. Payton merely stared at him, utterly dumbfounded by his actions. He finished or rather didn't finish, by nodding quickly and hurrying to the closet where Marjorie had hung his woolen overcoat. "It won't take long I'll be right " His voice was lost as he moved into the closet searching for his coat. He appeared a moment later with his silly hat plopped on his head, his scarf dangling in long strands on either side of his neck, and one arm stuffed into a sleeve. The coat hanger still stuck out of the back of the coat. He stopped in mid stride, realizing he was pressing against another body. He lowered his arm, slowly sliding into the other sleeve and raised his eyes to meet the pair looking down at him.
"Where are you going?" a low voice almost growled. Donnie looked from under the brim of his cap at a very stern Payton. He swallowed hard.
"M-m-my car " he began in a high pitched whisper, "I left something th ." Payton was shaking her head. She took a deep breath, but before she could say anything he hurried to finish. "I have to get it Miss McAllister. It's very important, the most important thing I had tonight. Oh, lord I can't believe I left it there." He finished more to himself than to her. Somehow the urgency in his voice convinced her of his desperation.
"I can't let you go out there, Donnie," she shook her head again as she reached over his head and caught hold of the hanger that was poking out of the collar of his coat. She used it to steer him in the direction she wanted him to go. Before he could protest she continued, "Henry can take you back to your car in his truck. I'm sure you can get what you need and get it started as well." She stopped and turned him to face her, "that is unless, you planned on spending the night?" She cocked her head to one side, raising her eyebrows.
"Spend the night?" he repeated, "Spend the night! Oh no, no, Miss McAllister, no, no I I I no, no." He shook his head rapidly from side to side causing the ear covers of his cap to flap wildly.
Henry stepped behind him and took the hanger from Payton, steering the young man toward the front door, "Doncha worry yerself none, Miss Payton, we'll be back before old Ben chimes the hour." He caught the young man as he stumbled once. "Better git yer sea legs, bucko 'er I'll leave ya in my wake." He scolded as they exited the manor.
The door shut softly and the manor fell into dead silence. Outside the revving of the truck's engine signaled the duo's departure and the entire group broke into laughter.
By the time Marjorie set the last dish back into the tall china closet and the ballroom darkened with its doors once again pulled shut, Henry and Donnie had returned. The young man smiled broadly as he entered and placed a very large box under the tree. He stood and looked at it with a hint of pride.
"You can be first, Donnie." Reagan's voice came from his side. She stood holding a painted glass ornament out to him. He took it gently and held it in his hand. Mentally he told himself over and over 'don't drop it, oh please don't drop it'. He looked over his shoulder at Payton who nodded with a small smile. Donnie carefully reached out and hooked the baseball-sized decoration on one of the branches of the tall pine. Reagan clapped in approval as the others moved closer and began to gingerly take more of the glitzy ornaments to decorate the beautifully shaped tree. Henry trimmed the upper branches. Colin stood on the tall ladder that had been brought into the foyer earlier in the day while Reagan and Pamela used the staircase as a means to reach them. Before long the boxes were filled with nothing but crumpled tissue paper and were quickly recapped with their respective lids then piled in the kitchen to be returned to the attic by morning.
"Can we turn on the lights now?" Reagan asked eagerly.
"Not yet," Payton shook her head slowly, "something is missing, something very, very important."
Reagan looked at what she thought was probably the most beautiful Christmas tree she had ever seen. It actually seemed to glow without the lights. She scanned each branch, carefully noting the location of her 'special' ornaments. The candy canes Connie had provided as extra decoration, and the white tipped glittery pine cones Marjorie and Henry had taken from a small box and placed on the branches near the far wall (even though Payton insisted they put them in the front). She looked at Pamela who shrugged her shoulders and turned up both palms. "What, Payton, what's missing?" She asked her sister, her face scrunched up in confusion and wonder.
"Well," Payton explained as she walked toward the one box that was still on the foyer floor. "You know we had all these ornaments from a while ago that I suppose were mine. And then there were yours," she placed her hand under the silvery pink and blue ball that had adorned Reagan's first tree and quickly took a breath in order to continue. "So there were your things and there were my things, but there wasn't anything that was ours " Reagan still seemed confused. "Something," she picked up the box and walked back to Reagan, "that would be special to both of us." The girl looked at the box for a moment then back to her sister who nodded and motioned for her to open the lid. Pamela moved next to her friend for a better look.
Reagan lifted the top of the box slowly, revealing the folded white paper underneath. The girl was forced to place the box on the floor in order to maneuver the rest of the unveiling. She slowly parted the paper as the group moved in an arc around her. The young girl's mouth dropped open and her eyes went wide, freezing her in a moment of silent awe. Almost in slow motion she looked up at her sister then back down at the object under the tissue. She reached into the box taking the item in her arms and lifting it as though it was a newborn babe. "Payton," she breathed, "she's beautiful." She turned the article toward the others displaying it carefully, but with pride.
Everyone nodded in agreement as the girl showed off the baby-doll-sized angel she had lifted from the box. It was clothed in a white satin robe edged with gold that matched the cord around its waist. Its wings, that spread out at its shoulders, were covered with real feathers that glowed with iridescent colors of dark greens and metallic hues. The figure held its hands out in annunciation of the birth of the King and its look of celestial contentment was unmistakable.
"Would you like to put her at the top?" Payton asked quietly, bending close to the child's ear. Reagan was speechless and managed only a slow nod as she hugged the angel close to her heart. She looked into the figure's soft blue eyes. Her heart thumped against her chest and she wondered if Payton's thoughts matched her own. 'Was this the angel her mother had promised would always look down from heaven at her? Was this the angel that now protected her parents?' "Come on," Payton placed an arm around her shoulders and led her to the foot of the stairs where Colin met them. They walked to the landing at the top. The young lawyer lifted the thin youngster and held her tightly as she reached across the small space to place the figure on its rightful perch. For a moment everyone merely admired it. Payton was careful to stand back from the railing in order to brush the tears that fell, despite her efforts to control them.
Colin turned to the child at his side. "Now the lights!" He smiled, grabbed her hand and the hand of the woman behind him then walked quickly down the stairs. Reagan practically skipped to Henry who stood next to the handle shaped switch on the wall. With one hard push she flipped the lever up and brought the illumination of the tree to life and at the same time switched off the regular lights in the foyer. She practically jumped from the spot behind the tree in order to be in front of it as the lights came on.
"Beautiful," Reagan nodded as she leaned back and rested against her sister. Payton hugged the child. Pamela smiled and nodded as Connie put an arm around her. Marjorie leaned her head against her husband's shoulder. Donnie poked Colin in the ribs with his elbow and grinned sideways in a look of approval. Colin put a hand on the young man's shoulder and nodded in agreement.
They had made an excellent choice; it was a very special tree sharing in a very special moment.
The clock in the foyer chimed ten times, but before Payton could announced it was past the time certain young people were in bed, Connie pulled a small box from under the tree and held it out to her. "Sorry, boss, couldn't resist. You know how I love to shop." She shrugged guiltily. Payton shook her head as she took the small gift. Connie leaned close and kissed the younger woman's cheek then hugged her tightly, whispering in her ear, "had to bring something for you, the rest are for the little one." She snickered as Payton pushed her away with a similar sound.
"I've got presents for everyone, too!" Reagan piped from across the foyer. Before anyone could respond she disappeared through the dining room door. The others looked at each quickly then back to the opening that the child had just gone through. A moment later they all jumped a bit as the hollow sound of the library door slamming echoed through the house. Reagan appeared again, her arms were full of small packages wrapped in white paper and tied with red or green ribbon. She strode across the room examining small hand written cards then distributing the gifts to their respective recipients. Connie put her package up to her ear and gave it a small shake as the girl asked them to wait until she was finished so they could open them at the same time. Then she stood in the center of the wide foyer for a better view of the group. "Okay, now!" Reagan announced pointing her index finger up then dropping her arm quickly. For a few seconds the only sound in the room was the rattle and swishy crinkle of paper as it came off of the small treasures. Then one by one the beneficiaries of Reagan's Christmas creations began to admire their special gifts.
Marjorie held a multicolored almost square swatch of thick fabric in front of her. It was roughly made and she would definitely take a needle and thread to the edge to prevent it from unraveling but its simple childish beauty brought tears to the older woman's eyes. It had been many years since she had received such a heartfelt gift. Unable to speak she simply pulled Reagan into a giant hug, which the girl returned with equal gusto. "It's a pot holder or," she explained seriously, "you could use it to put your hot kettle on so it doesn't make a burn mark on the table." Marjorie hugged her again and Reagan noticed the tears. "Don't you like it?" Her voice was quiet and hinted a bit of anxiety.
"Oh, no, sweetheart," Marjorie's voice was hushed and cracked with emotion, "no, no don't you ever think that," she cooed as she squeezed the girl a third time and rocked her gently back and forth. "This is the most special, most beautiful, wonderful tea kettle holder I have ever, ever seen." Marjorie managed a smile then held the girl's face in her hands and kissed her on both cheeks. She held out the cloth for everyone to admire, then hugged it to her chest with one hand while reaching into her sleeve with the other to pull out her handkerchief. She sniffled a few times before realizing all eyes were trained on her. "Well now, then lets have a look at what everyone else found." She announced firmly, then quickly wiped her eyes and brought herself back to her former state of mind.
"Hey, its a its a a " Donnie smiled holding up a baseball sized globe covered with small brown bumps and tied with a deep blue string.
"It's a potpourri ball," Reagan helped him. "You can hang it in your elevator so when those men come in smoking those awful little black cigars," she wrinkled her nose and waved her hand beneath it while scrunching up her face in a most unpleasant scowl, "it will help keep the car smelling much better!" Her smile quickly returned and was matched by the young man's.
"Well, that is just the one thing I never thought of," Donnie nodded and brought the ball against his nose. He took a deep breath followed immediately by a round of very loud sneezes. "Kinda smells orangey," he managed to comment between sniffles. Donnie rubbed his nose with one finger and blinked the tears from his red-rimmed eyes. "Sure is powerful." He sneezed one last mighty sneeze.
"Bless you," everyone replied for the fifth time. He nodded his thanks and pulled a large red paisley railroad hankie from his hip pocket. The toot that echoed from his nose caused the younger girls to explode into a fit of laughter.
"It's made from an orange and a lot of whole cloves, Donnie." Reagan explained through her giggles. "You shouldn't put it that close to your face." She shook her head. Donnie was funny, but he was one of the sweetest, most caring people she had every known. She imagined her father had been much like this young man long before she or Payton were part of his life.
"Thank you, Reagan," Donnie mumbled through his hankie as he tooted his proboscis a second time, but much more quietly. "I can't wait to try it out."
Colin approached the girl quietly, wrapping one arm around her shoulder. He gently rubbed his thumb across the embroidered letters in the corner of the starched white handkerchief he held in his other hand. "Did you do this yourself, Reagan?" He asked quietly.
Reagan nodded with a smile of her own. "Well, mostly Colleen," she looked quickly at Payton then corrected herself, "er Miss Gibson helped me. She traced the letters in good handwriting and brought me the threads. The handkerchief was her father's." She paused and thought for a moment, "oh, but he didn't use it. It's still new. It was extra," she assured the young lawyer. "I picked the colors though."
Colin smiled wider. Purple and yellow were not one of his usual color combination choices, but it was something that he could honestly say he did not already have. "It's terrific, Slugger." He bent down and kissed the top of her head, causing a deep blush to flare across the girl's cheeks. She quickly ducked out of his half-hug and hurried to Connie's side.
"That one took a long time because I had to find just the right shaped bottle," she pointed to the hourglass shaped jar the secretary held. It was covered with multicolored, various shaped bits of tissue paper that seemed to shine with some sort of high gloss finish. Each piece of tissue was outlined with a raised black substance. "I glued on all the pieces, then C ," she coughed a tiny cough, "Miss Gibson helped with the outlining."
Connie turned the item over in her hand, examining the workmanship. "This Miss Gibson of yours is a woman of many talents, I imagine." She looked at Payton, who looked away quickly, to avoid a chuckle.
"Oh, she's a teacher almost." Reagan commented casually. "She has to know a lot about everything." Connie smiled again and held the small colorful bottle out at arm's length. "If you put a little chubby candle inside, you can see the colors reflect all over the room."
"A candle holder," Connie repeated quietly, "a candle holder, of course!" She looked up quickly at the others who were staring accusingly. "I knew it all the time!" she laughed loudly as she pulled Reagan close, squishing her into an engulfing squeeze.
"How'd a little mite like yerself come up with the likes of this?" Henry beamed as he held the nine-inch, white, braided cord against his wrist.
Reagan reached up and tied the ends together, then stepped back to admire the boson bracelet's fit. "There's a lot of books about the sea in that library," she informed the rugged older man. "Marjorie said you were a seaman, so I looked in them for the best thing to give you. I found a book that said sailors' wives gave them this kind of bracelet so they would always be reminded of home so they would always come back from the sea," she recited as if she had memorized the text. "The seawater made them shrink so they fit snug and the sailor's didnt' lose them."
Henry ran his finger over the thick twine on his wrist, "and every family'd have its own design so nary a one of 'em was like another." He looked at Marjorie then back at the youngster next to him. "Its a fine band, best I've ever had the pleasure to wear." Reagan smiled then hugged the old sailor's waist causing the man to get a bit flustered. He gently patted her back. "I'll keep 'er with me always," he assured her.
Pamela held up a string of colorful beads set in a repeating pattern. She immediately recognized it as one that matched a necklace she had once admired in Reagan's room at school. Reagan winked at her friend and pulled a similar piece from beneath her lace collar. "Now, we match," she whispered as the two girls latched their pinkie fingers together in an pre-adolescent symbol of friendship.
At that moment all eyes seemed to be trained on Payton, who had waited until all of the others had opened and admired the gifts so painstakingly made by her younger sister. She still held the small rectangular package pressed against her heart with both hands. It really didn't matter what it was, what mattered was that Reagan had given it to her. She thought for a moment trying to remember the last time that any little trinket or elaborate gift had meant anything at all to her. Payton McAllister never actually realized that the value of any gift came not inside the package but in the heart of the giver. She wanted to keep this small treasure, as it was, forever. She looked from face to expectant face then noticed the pair of blue-green eyes watching her carefully. Slowly, the woman pulled the red and green ribbon loose and wound it around her hand before carefully freeing the tape and unfolding the tissue. Reagan moved next to her sister's side and stood on tiptoe to watch her unveil the special gift.
"Are you sure you don't want me to wait for the 25th?" She asked the girl. Reagan shook her head quickly and motioned for her sister to finish. Payton pulled the last of the paper off of the flat box and gingerly lifted the lid. She stared at it for a moment as a smile spread across her face. She stooped low to meet Reagan's level. "Thank you," she whispered as the sisters looked into each other's eyes.
"So?" Connie interrupted, "share?"
Payton stood and lifted the oval shaped frame from the box. It was adorned with small shells and tiny dry pink roses. The picture inside was of a very young couple dressed in wedding attire. Jack McAllister's image was unmistakable, despite the fact he could not have been more than nineteen or twenty-years-old in the photo. The young woman in the regal bridal gown was tall with dark hair and striking blue eyes. There was no doubt it was Payton's mother. Payton barely remembered ever seeing the photo. It must have been part of Jack's possessions. She felt a pang of regret that her sister had known more about her own mother than she had ever cared to learn. They would certainly have to talk. Odd that the younger sister would be the one to fill in the holes in the older sister's memory. This was only a start.
"I've got a picture of Daddy with my Mom. Payton needs one too." She explained to Connie who suddenly was speechless. "Miss Gibson gave me the shells she found at the Jersey shore and those little pink flowers were part of a bouquet that Daddy kept in a hat box. Collee Mmmiss Gibson got the ribbons clean and showed me how to get them to stick to an old frame I found in one of Daddy's boxes that Henry put in my room."
"Where did this picture come from, Reagan?" Payton asked as she passed the frame to Marjorie, who admired it with awe.
"Daddy," she answered confidently, "he kept it in a folder in his briefcase. One day I spilled it over and found the picture. I knew it was Daddy but ." She looked at her sister, suddenly afraid to continue.
"But?" Payton urged her to continue.
"B-but it wwwasn't my Mom so I kept it. I hid it in my school bag and when he looked for it I wouldn't give it to him. I told him I never saw it, but Mother explained who the lady was and said that Daddy kept it because she was special to him a long time before found her or had me." Reagan waited for someone to give her permission to continue. At Payton's nod she went on. "I gave it back to him the next day. He was awful angry," she paused and a blush rose on her cheeks, "he told me all about it, and her and Payton " she finished in a very, very tiny voice.
"I'm sorry for that, Reagan," Payton put an arm around her sister's shoulders. Reagan quickly hid her temporary embarrassment in her sister's side. "But, I thank you for this beautiful gift. I'll be sure it is never far from sight." She wrapped both arms around the girl and bent to kiss the top of her head. "Now," Payton breathed nervously, "I've got a few gifts of my own to distribute." She squeezed the girl one last time then released her and walked to the piano to retrieve four large white envelopes. She handed one to each of her employees as she crossed the room on her way back to her sister's side. "You," she tapped the girl on the end of the nose, "will just have to wait for Santa."
A moment later a clamor of voices came together in a chorus of "Oh no, I can't accept this," and "This is too much," and, "Oh lord!"
Payton held up one hand signaling silence. "No, it isn't 'too much'," she began staring at Donnie who seemed to be protesting the most. "And YES you can accept it," she aimed directly at Connie then turned to her housekeeping staff, "but the Lord had an awful lot to do with it," she smiled at Reagan, "I have a lot of Christmases to make up for, consider it a down payment. Donnie, I know you dropped out of law school when your dad passed away. You can't be an elevator operator for the rest of your life. That will get you through the first year of college, the rest you can work off after you pass the bar and become a member of McAllister's legal staff." She announced to the young man leaving him very little room to protest. "Marjorie, Henry," she turned to the elderly couple, "I made an awful lot of horrible Christmas memories for you and I know how much your children and your grandchildren would love to see you during the holidays. You leave on Tuesday." She held her hand up again stopping Marjorie before she could begin. "Don't worry about us, believe it or not I can cook AND I'm sure my office can do without me for a few days while my sister and I enjoy our first Christmas together. Besides, I've already spoken to your daughter in South Carolina and she is expecting you before the holiday." She hugged the woman who had been the closest thing to a mother she had ever known and both were then wrapped in Henry's huge bear hug.
Connie was shaking her head when Payton turned to face her. Payton wagged a finger at her. "Don't you dare say a thing!" she warned. "That covers the amount I should have raised your salary to back in September forgive me?" She looked for a moment as young as Reagan. Connie was overwhelmed. She pulled Payton into a tight squeeze then released her. "The ticket is to the New Year's Eve Party at the Waldorf Astoria. It is the party of the year and " she smiled saucily, "you'll finally have somewhere to wear that fur coat and all that jewelry you are always collecting." She hugged the secretary quickly and brushed away a tear before anyone could see it.
"Colin," she turned to the young lawyer, "you were a little more difficult, yet if it weren't for your quick thinking, I might not have the opportunity to be here tonight. You saved my sister's life," she stated quietly. 'And mine in the process, I do believe,' she thought. "I understand the legal department hasn't had any renovations since the war. That should get you started, that is if you are willing to take charge down there." She asked hopefully. The young man stared at the form in his hand, for a beat, before nodding. It would mean more work, but it would also mean the opportunity to improve the way the department worked. It would also mean he would spend a lot of time in conference with Miss Payton McAllister. Perhaps they would get to know each other a lot better.
Before anyone could become melancholy Connie began passing gifts to Reagan and Pamela, then all the adults relaxed in the festivity of watching the girls open them. It wasn't long before the entire foyer floor was covered with sheets of crumbled wrapping paper. Reagan opened a silver plated box that played the tinkling tune of a familiar lullaby while Pamela unwrapped a fine crystal snow globe. Other gifts included sweaters and leather school bags, stockings, candy, a stuffed bear, and so many things it would take the rest of the night to carry everything upstairs and sort it out according to new owner. The last box left was the one Donnie had returned to his car to retrieve. He pulled it out gently and brought it to Payton.
"It's for both of you," he blushed, "I didn't figure you'd have one."
Payton pulled the wrappings from the box, but allowed Reagan to reveal its contents. Inside was a miniature stable, unmistakably hand made, and fine, hand-carved wooden figures that made up the entire Nativity scene. Reagan held the small crib in her hands admiring the infant Jesus.
"Um I my we ." Donnie stammered an explanation, "my grandpa, he, ah he does this as a hobby and I kinda help him, so when you asked me to come I wanted to give you something special." The young man spoke in such a hushed tone it was hard to hear every word.
"Donnie, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen and no I do not have one, but if I did this would certainly take its place." Payton thanked him as Reagan and Pamela took the box to the base of the tall tree and began to set the pieces in place.
Colin moved to the piano and pulled the bench from beneath it. "May I?" he asked Payton, as he set the glass he had been holding on top of the instrument. "My Mother insisted I learn, said I'd be a hit at parties," he explained when she looked surprised at his request. Payton nodded and the young man sat down fingering a few arpeggios before playing the more familiar chords of well-known carols.
The group joined in singing, as they scooped up the piles of paper from the floor and deposited them a large box Henry had brought in to do the job. As the clock struck twelve Payton noticed two youngsters trading very tired yawns while alternately rubbing their eyes and Colin began to pick out the tune of 'What Child is This'.
"What child is this, who laid to rest on Mary's lap is sleeping " Reagan's voice rose clear and strong above the others as she knelt in front of the crèche. The others fell silent to listen to the child's sweet rendition of the century old carol. Payton looked up at the angel that a few hours before had been set atop the tree. She had chosen the figure because its soft countenance, reddish blonde hair and greenish eyes reminded her so much of the child that had become not only a part of her life, but a part of her heart. 'Whose child is this? is more like it,' she thought to herself as Reagan went into the second verse of the carol. 'Does she really deserve the likes of me?' She shook her head. As if on cue, Connie wrapped an arm around the younger woman's shoulder and gave her a motherly smile. Had she known what Payton was thinking?
"She's a treasure, Payt," the secretary whispered, "keep her close to that big heart of yours. She's good for you." She squeezed her young employer again and this time Payton relaxed, listening to the song and resting her head against Connie's strong shoulder.
Colin finished the song with grand flourish then rose to applaud the young singer with the others. He bowed when Payton held a hand out acknowledging his skill at the keyboard. Reagan covered a wide yawn and blinked a few times before Payton took her hand and turned to find Pamela already fast asleep on a huge stuffed panda lying beneath the tree. Henry bent and scooped the girl into his strong arms, ascending the stairs a few steps before his employer. Donnie thanked his hostess for a wonderful evening and Marjorie brought the coats from the hall closet. Connie hugged and kissed both McAllister sisters several times before Colin helped her into her long fur wrap and insisted on walking her to her car. He pulled on his own coat and the three MAC Shipping employees left Mac an Bhaird together. Marjorie closed the door behind them and turned to her boss. She cocked her head toward the smaller sister that leaned against the taller one, practically sleeping on her feet. Henry was halfway down the stairs when Marjorie informed him he had a second customer. The large man smiled and took a very tired Reagan into his arms. She rested her head on his shoulder, vowing to wait for Payton to come to say good night but was fast asleep before Henry reached the fifth step.
"The house is happy again," Marjorie gleamed, "Thank you, Miss Payton." But before Payton could answer she excused herself, announcing there was more to clean up in the kitchen before she could retire for the evening and that Payton had two little ones to get undressed and under the covers. Not an easy chore, she informed her young employer, when they are already asleep. Marjorie quickly disappeared into the dim interior of the dining room. Payton waited until she heard the soft whoosh of the kitchen door and the muffled voices of the elderly couple before she turned and took one last look at the tree that now adorned the manor. She flicked the switch on the far wall casting the room into darkness then turned toward the soft glow at the top of the stairs. Yes, the manor had taken on a new feeling. It was fresh. It was comfortable. It was home.
Tuesday morning found the McAllister sisters once again at Grand Central station. Pamela waved from the platform as she boarded the train bound for Albany. The youngster held her small pink case, but was sure that the 'extra' baggage she had to carry would surprise her brothers, who would meet her at that station. Both girls promised to write, to call, and to stay in touch as long as they could. An hour later Marjorie and Henry nervously boarded the south bound express to Fayetteville. Marjorie still protested as Henry took her hand and led her to the platform. She fretted over how Payton would run the house and take care of Reagan, alone, and who would cook Christmas dinner and they would be alone and . Henry gave her a gentle shove into the car then waved at the sisters. Marjorie waved from the window until the train was out of the station.
A driver from the office met them and drove the limo that Henry had piloted from the Hamptons back to the Bhaird Building where Payton had a few last minute things to take care of before returning home. She had left her car in the parking garage the day before and would drive them back after they shared a special dinner at Connie's Greenwich apartment. She'd insisted they visit before she too left for a visit with her family.
Reagan held Payton's hand tightly as they walked through the lobby and although she casually joked with Donnie who explained some very important, yet not widely known, Santa Claus rules, she refused to relinquish her need for sisterly protection. He informed her that she absolutely must not forget to hang her stocking immediately before retiring for the evening but not a second before. To do so would mean the owner was anticipating a bit too much and might risk forfeiting a few gifts for their effort. He reminded her to leave at least two large cookies, a large glass of milk and a few raw carrots as a kind of thank you for the man in red.
Payton made several phone calls, signed four contracts, reviewed shipping manifests, verified shipping schedules and returned three important messages in the three hours she spent locked behind her office doors. The most important task she had to undertake meant a trip to the legal department. There she made a special visit to Colin Walters informing him that she wanted to see a copy of her father's will on Monday morning. Then she wanted him to do whatever he had to, to make sure she was legally Reagan's guardian. He was to make it airtight. She did not intend to take any chances on any relatives showing up with ideas of taking the child away from her.
Reagan finished a report on South America, the last of four Geometry problems, and a book report on Robinson Crusoe. Connie answered the phone that seemed to ring endlessly, dealt with visitors that seemed unusually agitated for the season, and fielded complaints from several heavy set men with those awful stinky cigars. Reagan wondered if Donnie had brought his potpourri ball. By 3:30, they considered themselves finished for the day and set off for the village in Payton's car, leaving the limo so it could be used to pick up the Brauers when they returned the next week.
Dinner at Connie's small apartment was excellent yet simple. There were soft buns with crispy crusts and a variety of cold meats and cheeses. Several salads were included in the meal and Reagan suddenly felt more like she was at a Fourth of July picnic than a Christmas supper.
"Hey, you know what I always say," the secretary explained as she passed a large glass of iced tea to Reagan, "never be ordinary!" Connie laughed loudly causing Payton and Reagan to join in. It was wonderful to see her boss smiling, laughing living. "Besides, I figure you'll be having enough of all that high falutin' food at all those dinner parties you'll be invited to this weekend." She winked at Reagan while poking Payton with her elbow.
There were wonderfully unique decorations in Connie's dwelling. She had a small Christmas tree in a large pot. The secretary explained that she had brought it from her father's land in Virginia as sort of a little piece of home. She never thought the little thing would survive in the city but here it was twenty years later and it was still thriving. After the holidays it would go back to being just a little tree in a big pot, but for now it was a sparkling addition to her cozy living room. The evening was warm and relaxed, filled with friendly conversation and easy banter. By 9 p.m., Payton and Reagan had said their farewells and wished Connie a pleasant trip. The drive back to Mac an Bhaird was long and a light snow fell under a full moon. Payton pointed to the deer, silhouetted in the eerie winter light only to find her sister curled into a tight ball on the back seat and fast asleep.
The next two days seemed to drag for Reagan who was suddenly convinced that either there were certainly more than twenty-four hours in the days just before Christmas or that there were a lot more than sixty minutes in every one of those hours. Payton on the other hand knew exactly where those extra hours had come from. The same two days raced past her despite her efforts to get every last minute thing done before Christmas Eve. Reagan had been through so much and lost even more, she wanted to be sure this holiday was special for her.
Thursday evening brought a loud knock at the front door that startled both McAllisters as they prepared to enjoy the meal Payton had taken all day to create. It even included a special dessert. Living in a small apartment while studying business management had proved beneficial for the young heiress. She fought her way into the course, despite the objections of the 'old boy' society that ran the college, then graduated with grades that rivaled the top students in the class. Somehow she suspected her father's donations to the school had had something to do with her being accepted there and at the time resented him for it. Now she wished for the opportunity to thank him. She stood behind her sister as the child pulled the large front door open.
"You're phone isn't working," Colin announced, explaining his sudden visit. "I hope you don't mind that "
"No, no of course not," Payton replied, placing her hands on Reagan's shoulders. Inwardly she smiled, remembering distinctly that she had made a call not twenty minutes before. Somehow that didn't matter very much, she found herself intrigued by the young man's visit and curious as to what was so urgent it brought him to her doorstep. A terrible rush overcame her as she thought that perhaps he had come to tell her that her guardianship of young Reagan had already been challenged. But, Colin would not do that here in front of Reagan or now, two days before Christmas. She stepped aside, so the young lawyer could enter, taking Reagan with her. He shook the fresh snow from his collar and stomped his feet before stepping into the foyer. They stood facing each other both waiting for the other to speak first. Reagan stood between her sister and the man. She glanced quickly from one to the other and scowled. It seemed so funny to the girl that two people who seemed to like each other so much always seemed to have so very little to say.
"Do you want to stay for supper, Colin," Reagan asked grabbing the man's hand and tugging him a bit. "Payton made Beef Stroganoff and a lemon meringue pie!"
"Oh wow," the young man slapped his forehead, "I didnt even think I'm sorry to ruin your meal ." He answered Reagan but never took his eyes from her big sister.
Payton smiled and shook her head as she took his other hand, "Nonsense, Colin. Please come in, join us." She motioned toward the dining room with one hand and turned quickly to hide the look of glee that suddenly overcame her.
"Stroganoff, huh?" Colin raised his eyebrows as he shrugged off his coat and set it on the large foyer bench. Reagan nodded quickly as she waited then took his hand again.
"I had a Russian b fr acquaintance in college, his grandmother insisted I take the recipe," Payton boasted, suddenly remembering the tryst she had recklessly had with the feisty European Cossack." 'That is one memory I will not be sharing with little sister and if she ever pulls a reckless stunt like that I'll ' Payton allowed her thoughts to bounce between her torrid past and her sister's, soon to be very 'over protected' future. Colin stopped, noticing the look of displeasure that crossed her face. She quickly pushed the thoughts away and brightened her expression.
"It's sort of my specialty," she smiled at the lawyer.
"In that case, I would be honored," Colin replied extending his arm to her. Payton hesitated for a moment then looped her arm through his. Quickly, Colin repeated the action with his opposite arm and Reagan stood on her tiptoes to mimic her older sister. The trio walked into the dining room together.
"So, what are your plans for Christmas?" Colin asked as Payton placed a steaming plate in front of him. She looked at Reagan, who quickly shrugged her shoulders.
"Well, I guess I hadn't given it much thought past getting up to see what surprises Santa leaves for us," she explained with a quick wink at the young man. She looked back at Reagan who had suddenly become very silent and seemed lost in some private thought. 'Memories,' Payton told herself, worrying that perhaps Colin's question had stirred some private misery in the child's mind. "Reagan?" She nudged the girl softly as she placed a plate in front of her. "Is there something special you'd like to do." The girl shook her head slowly, keeping her eyes cast toward the table. Even at that angle, Payton could see the tears threatening to fall. She squeezed her sister's hand and looked to Colin for some kind of assistance.
"We've got lots of Christmas customs in my house," he began, "done the same thing every year since well, since I was just a little guy." He could see that wasn't a lot of help as the girl's head seemed to drop lower. "All families must have them, huh? Hey, Slugger, why don't you tell us what kinds of things you do," he suggested, hoping that Reagan would share her memory and thereby give Payton a hint as to what she could do to help make things a bit easier for the girl. Payton bit her bottom lip and smiled a thank you at the man. Her feelings for him seemed to grow stronger every time they met.
Reagan shrugged again, then took a deep breath. "We had dinner, just the three of us " she looked up quickly at her sister, "but there was always an extra place just in case." Payton felt the shard go through her heart. They never stopped hoping she would change her mind and show up on that holiest of nights. She closed her eyes, squeezed the girl's hand tighter and hoped the tears would not fall before she could pull her defenses back into place. A larger, stronger, hand fell on hers and pressed its warm and support against her. She turned to the young lawyer catching his quick smile.
"It's okay," Payton's voice cracked just a bit, "go on, Reagan, what else?"
Reagan looked from face to face and blinked back her own tears. "After dinner Daddy would read a special Christmas story. I always picked that Scrooge one. It was my favorite, because I used to wish to wish that " her head slowly fell back down until her chin bumped her chest.
Payton lifted the girl's head with one finger under her chin. "It's okay, little one," she whispered, "I wish I had come too." She smiled a half-smile and nodded permission for the girl to continue. Reagan smiled too, and quickly brushed away a tear with the back of her hand. She sniffed once before staring again.
"Mom would make a special drink that her great-great-great-grandpa always had on Christmas Eve and we would all toast and clink the glasses together. Then we would walk, walk all the way to St. Patrick's for Midnight Mass. Daddy would stop and talk to everyone and he'd wish all of them a Merry Christmas. We would hold hands and walk together. After Mass we would walk home and sing Christmas carols all the way." She laughed a little, "sometimes other people would sing with us and one time a man put a silver dollar in Daddy's hat." She laughed again then added, "but he gave it to another man who was very cold and sitting in a doorway." She picked up her fork and moved the food around a bit then took a small taste. She chewed thoughtfully. "When we got back, Mother would say 'get to bed quickly or you'll miss Father Christmas', that's what they call him in England," she explained. "Next thing I knew it was morning."
Payton thought for a bit. She hadn't seen the inside of a church since her days at Brisbey when the students were marched into chapel every Sunday morning. After graduation she dismissed the whole thing, praying never seemed to work for her anyway. She had told herself that God had more important things to worry about than Payton McAllister, much like her own father. 'What a stupid fool I've been " she told herself. There was a small church in town. It was the parish church connected to the school Reagan would soon attend. She would call tomorrow.
Colin sat back and wiped his mouth with his napkin. "Well, ladies the reason I came here tonight and the reason I asked is because I would like to officially invite you to Christmas dinner at my parent's home. It isn't far from here and I can pick you up at 4:00. However, I can't take no for an answer," he leaned closer to Payton and added. "My mother would never ever let me live it down." He sat back up and continued, "So please say you'll come?"
"Can we Payton?" Reagan's cheerful disposition seemed to be returning.
"I don't know." Payton drummed her fingers on the table and made believe she was deep in thought. She tapped the side of her head with her index finger. Reagan's eyebrows went up in anticipation of a positive answer; a quick glance at Colin told her he was expecting much the same thing. "I don't suppose it would be an imposition then?" Colin shook his head quickly. "And it wouldn't be considered a conflict of interest?" She raised her own eyebrows. The young man coughed to hide a blush then shook his head again.
"Absolutely not, just two ah, three friends," he corrected himself, quickly winking at Reagan, "sharing in the spirit of the holiday. Anyway the family is so big, you'd just blend right in."
"Then tell your mother to count two more guests for dinner." Payton announced as Reagan cheered.
Dinner continued without incident and finished with large slices of luscious lemon pie. Payton and Colin moved to enjoy their coffee in front of the fire place after the three diners had washed, dried and put away every dish, pot and pan, leaving the kitchen just as immaculate as Marjorie would have done. Reagan sat at the dining room table working on a puzzle Colleen had given her before leaving the week before. She smiled as she listened to the muffled sounds of their quiet conversation and watched how easily they seemed to become relaxed with each other.
Of course most of the conversation was about the party a few nights ago and plans for the coming holiday, but still it was comforting to the child. When the clock chimed the hour Colin stood and announced it was time he said 'goodnight'. Payton rose as well and walked with the young man to the archway that separated the dining room from the main foyer. Colin turned back to say goodnight to Reagan, but found the girl snickering behind both of her hands. He looked at Payton, who looked back with an equally confused expression, then back at Reagan.
Reagan pulled one hand from her mouth and pointed to the doorframe directly above the couple. Both looked up slowly. Above them hung a small green ball dotted with silvery white berries. It hung by a gold cord that was attached to a matching bow at the top. The couple looked back into each other's eyes.
"Mistletoe! You have to kiss her, Colin!" Reagan managed to blurt out between giggles.
Payton's eyes went to the toes of her shoes as she shuffled nervously. Colin took both of her hands in his own pulling her a little closer. She quickly freed one hand and placed it on his chest, stopping him. "Hey," he leaned even closer and whispered into her ear, "can't ruin the kid's holiday, now can we?" He drew back just enough to keep them nose to nose and raised his eyebrows in a silent challenge.
Payton shook her head so slightly, it was more of a thought than a motion. Her heart raced wildly and thumped so loudly she was sure he could hear it hammering against her chest. Her knees felt week and deep within her something stirred that she was sure would never be reawakened. He was so close she could feel his breath against her lips and it was everything she could do not to pull away and run from this terrifying, yet somehow gratifying moment.
She closed her eyes losing all conscious thought as their lips met. Then he stepped back and somewhere she could still hear the tinkling sound of Reagan's laughter. She released the breath she had been holding and found herself very glad that Colin was still holding her tightly, otherwise she was sure she would just dissolve into the carpet. He stepped back slowly, as if he really would rather have stayed exactly where he was. Payton wobbled a bit and put a hand to her head. Colin quickly put his hands back on her upper arms until she was steady.
"Must have been the wine," she sighed.
"What wine?" he whispered through a gleaming smile. She smiled back. Reagan had moved closer to the couple, suddenly very curious about this odd behavior. The lawyer snatched the girl and pulled her beneath the holly, lifting her up to his level and kissing her forehead before placing her back down on her feet. Reagan giggled even more than before then moved quickly to the steps where she was far away from the mistletoe to consider herself safe. Payton and Colin crossed the foyer where he pulled his coat on before putting a hand on the doorknob. He turned back to the woman and took her hand and gently pulled her closer.
"Good night, Payton McAllister," Colin whispered as he quickly kissed her cheek and pulled open the door.
"Good night," she whispered as she pushed it closed, then leaned against it lost in a myriad of thought.
Reagan watched from the staircase for a few seconds, then walked down the steps and across the foyer. She took her sister's hand and scrunched up her face as she looked up at her. Then taking Payton's hand she tugged her until she took a few steps forward. Payton let out a long sigh and clasped the girl's hand with a bit more pressure. She shook it once then looked down at the child. "He is kind of special, don't you think Reagan?"
Reagan nodded in agreement. "Come on, Payton," she patted her sister's hand as they walked toward the staircase, "its time for you to tell me its time for me to go to bed." Payton squeezed her shoulders and kissed her head as they started up the stairs. Yes, Colin Walters was turning out to be much more than she had ever expected him to be, much, much more.
Christmas Eve dawned bright and sunny. The cold air gave the sky a brilliant blue color and the snow glistened like thousands of tiny diamonds. Marjorie called to check up on her girls and to let them know she and Henry had arrived safety. She was thrilled to see all of her children had gathered there and wondered if young Payton had had anything to do with that. Payton pleaded innocent and was glad Marjorie was on the telephone and not in front of her. Of course MAC Corporation had made sure the entire Bauer clan was able to get to South Carolina for this very special family holiday. A second call came from Connie and Payton spent over an hour telling her secretary about the events of the impromptu dinner with her young lawyer.
Reagan tried to keep herself busy, but no amount of activity seemed to make the time pass any quicker. She sat in the window seat in upstairs hall looking out at the snow-covered hillside. It would be great to go sledding, but she knew Payton would never allow that. Not for a long time anyway. Payton did suggest a phone call to Pamela and even made the connection for her. The girls talked for more than an hour before they were told to say good bye then spent another thirty minutes doing that.
By three Payton called her younger sister to the kitchen and handed her an apron announcing they were about to prepare the best Christmas Eve dinner ever served in the manor. Payton pulled a large salmon from the refrigerator and gave directions to her aide on how to prepare the specialties that would go with it.
After dinner and what was by now the usual clean up, Payton shooed her younger sister off to the bath. Reagan whined a bit but decided it was much better to obey her older sibling since she did not want to test her threat of a certain view of the floor, especially on Christmas Eve.
"Now get dressed," Payton spoke through her teeth as she pulled a towel off her sister's head. "Sunday best!" She insisted as she disappeared behind her own bedroom door.
Reagan had no idea what kind of mischief her suddenly very silly sister was up to, but it did sound like fun. She quickly dressed and waited for Payton to return. When she did, she too was dress in holiday finery. She put out her hand and took Reagan's.
"Ready?" she asked. Reagan nodded and quickly followed her sister to the hall closet where she handed the girl her coat.
"Where are we going?" Reagan asked as she slipped it on.
"You'll see," Payton teased.
A half-hour later they were in the center of the little village of Donalson Bay, just five miles from their estate. They spent the evening window shopping in the gaily-lit shops that dotted the small square. A small coffee shop that remained open was inviting, as the sound of Christmas music rang from its door. They entered and were treated to hot chocolate and homemade cookies by a very round woman with rosy cheeks and a perpetual smile. After which they walked across the square toward the brightly-lit church on the small knoll beyond it. Payton marveled at the glow in Reagan's eyes as she tried to take in every sight and sound of the evening. She managed to sing along with every well-known hymn the choir lead the congregation in singing. Reagan added her own sweet voice and after Mass they walked silently back to the car. Even the drive home was more quiet than Payton had thought it would be. A few times she glanced at the girl thinking she had fallen asleep, but found Reagan staring pensively out the side window.
"Mummy always said that stars were the windows of heaven," Reagan's voice broke the silence in the large car. "She said that angels peeked through them to see us." She swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "Payton?" She took another breath but did not turn from the window to face her sister.
"Yes?" Payton tried to keep the emotion out of her voice. It was little more than a whisper.
"Do you suppose my Mom is an angel?" The girl asked in a very small cracking voice. "Do you think she saw me tonight? Do you think God let her look?"
Payton was certainly at a loss. She knew no more about angels or religion or beliefs or those little things Mommies' tell their children to keep them safe than she knew about how to build a Model T Ford. In fact she could probably build the car faster! She blinked a few times and was glad she had to keep her eyes on the road.
"Do you think, Payton?" Reagan repeated, turning to look at her sister for the first time since they had left the village.
She thought about the angel on top of their tree and the woman in the photo with her father. She thought about the notes in the scrapbook that Reagan kept under her bed and the empty place at her father's Christmas dinner table. She thought about this child who had to have come from a most special mother, a most loving and gentle mother and suddenly she answered without considering her words. "I believe she is and she did, Reagan. Your mother has to be an angel."
Reagan smiled as one solitary tear rolled over her cheek. "I bet she's found your Mum too, Payton. I bet they're best of friends. I bet they looked down at us together." The girl turned back to the window and leaned back against the seat. "I bet they are." She whispered comforting herself and her sister. It was a beautiful thought, a selfless thought and it sent Payton's soul searching for some memory of her mother. For a moment she could actually picture the two women seated at a large window, smiling down at them.
Once at home, Reagan happily hung her stocking on the mantle and made sure Payton did the same. They climbed the stairs together. Although she knew Reagan did not need it, Payton helped her into her pajamas and turned down the quilt on her bed. Reagan stood staring at the clean white sheet.
"Payton?" she asked in a hushed tone, "can I sleep with you, please?"
Payton sat on the bed and took the girl's hand and pushed one stray hair behind Reagan's ear and turned her head to look into the child's eyes. "Reagan? Is everything okay? Do you feel all right?"
"Can I please, Payton," Reagan begged again. "I'm not sick I just just don't want to be all by myself."
Payton looked at the child for a moment before answering. Suddenly it occurred to her that she really didn't want to be alone either, not anymore. Payton allowed a slow smile to spread across her face as she pulled the greatest gift she was ever to receive into a soft embrace. "Sure," she kissed the head that had easily come to rest on her breast, "come on." She stood and moved to her own room repeating the process of turning down the bed there. Reagan climbed inside and watched as her sister prepared for bed. When Payton finally settled beneath the covers she was sure Reagan had already fallen asleep but the girl snuggled closer pushing her head under her sister's arm to rest it against her chest. She wormed one slender arm across Payton's tummy and hugged her gently.
"I love you forever." Reagan mumbled sleepily. "I'm glad youre my sister and I'm glad you came to Christmas." She added around a yawn then snuggled even closer.
Payton wrapped the girl in a bear hug, pulling her up close enough to kiss her forehead. "I love you too, Reagan forever and ever," she whispered the words that she thought would never pass her lips as she rested her cheek against the soft blonde hair. Somehow those words just tumbled out without so much as a thought. Perhaps it was time, time for a lot of things. As far as Payton was concerned she was holding the very best gift she could ever receive. She wasnt quite sure if what she was doing in church was praying, but she had a very long talk with Jack McAllister and assured him that she would be a much better sister than she had been a daughter. It was very strange, but somehow she felt he had heard her. She hugged the girl against her chest tighter and began humming a familiar tune before softly singing close to the child's ear.
"What child is this, who laid to rest ."
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